The value of ideas

by Stephen Hardy

Just as this issue was about to leave our offices, Nortel announced the results of the bidding for the portfolio

of patents it hadn't already sold with the rest of the company. A consortium of industry giants–including Apple, EMC, Ericsson, Microsoft, Research In Motion, and Sony–submitted the winning bid of $4.5 billion. Since Nortel sold off the rest of the company for an approximate total of $3.5 billion, that means Nortel's ideas were worth more than what they did with them. Which seems a pretty effective way to find yourself in bankruptcy court.

A similar disconnect between the value of ideas and their implementation has dogged the optical communications market since the late 1990s. This disconnect is particularly acute in company valuations. The fact that one of Wall Street's primary statistical measurements of a company's performance is the price to earnings ratio illustrates how institutionalized such a disconnect has become. The P/E number estimates the difference between the price of the company's stock–the value of the "idea" of what people think that company is worth–and earnings, the value of what the company has actually accomplished.

In essence, P/E measures the differ-ence between fantasy and reality. It's a measure of irrationality.

During the bubble days, the financial community wildly overvalued the idea of optical communications, granting companies astounding valuations before they actually did anything. For several years after investors regained their senses, the pendulum swung the other way. Optical communications technology companies saw their valuations flatline regardless of how much their balance sheets improved.

These days, we're somewhere in between.

Companies involved in optical communications finally saw their valuations increase, as the financial community woke up to the fact that the idea of a fiber glut had no basis in reality these days, thanks to rapidly increasing bandwidth requirements from video and mobile traffic. Companies, such as Finisar, saw their stocks rise to post-bubble highs as they reported record revenue numbers.

Of course, we also know that as soon as Finisar's streak of record quarters ended, its stock plummeted–and took every other optical company's stock with it.

A reduction in Finisar's value was warranted. The amount of that reduction, and the reductions in most of other companies' values, was not. Again, the idea of what the company was worth and the reality of what it actually does remained disconnected.

I guess this will always be a fact of life for optical communications technology companies. They can control whether there is a disconnect between the potential value in revenues of the ideas they generate and how much revenue they actually earn. But the disconnect on Wall Street between the value of ideas and actual performance appears largely out of their hands.

stephenh@pennwell.com

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